Scattered around the mountains of San Agustín, Colombia are several archaeological sites consisting of roughly 513 statues carved from volcanic rock. Not much is known about the tribe of people who left these remarkable statues, but it’s believed that the statues were placed at burial mounds to honor their dead and perhaps protect them as their spirits journeyed on.
This type of destination completely fascinates me. Much like the great pyramids, Machu Picchu, or even Ciudad Perdida, this is a place steeped in mystery . . . just how did this pre-Colombian culture create such a complex and advanced technology? What were their lives like? Why did they vanish from the earth; their only record of existence left in ruin? Equally as interesting is the juxtaposition of the living, a group of tourists, (as diverse as the multitude of faces craved in stone) that descend upon San Agustín to marvel and wonder at the monuments built for the dead.
I was laying in hammock, having arrived too late in the day to venture to any of the sites when I met Sophie and Mia. They had just returned from a horseback riding tour, and though they were exhausted, we all started talking about our travel experiences. When they told me they had been traveling solo, before meeting in Quito – I was immediately intrigued. It isn’t uncommon for strangers to partner and travel together and even become close friends. In my experience, however, it has been rare to meet women traveling by themselves and I was curious to know what that experience had been like, especially in a country that has such a dated and unfortunate reputation for violence.
While I may never know why a mysterious culture left behind elaborate stone statues scattered across the area now know as San Agustín, I do know a great deal more about the lives of two interesting, strong, and independent woman from the Netherlands who had the courage to share their stories with a complete stranger.
Here are the stories of Sophie and Mia:
Name: Sophie Jutte
From: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Languages: Dutch, English, German, French
Length of trip: Two months
Sophie, can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to travel to South America? Well, I didn’t like my job and I wanted to do something else and I’d never really travelled alone. I’ve been to places alone, but they were places where I would live for a few months . . . and it was something that I really wanted to do, and I felt like this would be an opportunity to go. I had spent a little time in Suriname in South America and I really wanted to see more of South America.
Why did you choose Ecuador and Colombia? Well first, I wanted to go to Argentina but I heard so many people were going and I didn’t want to do what everyone was doing. And then I wanted to go to Peru, but at the time that I was going, like the Inca Trial would be closed. I had heard really good stories about Colombia so I decided to do Ecuador and Colombia.
Why do you like to travel? I really like meeting new people and not knowing what’s going to happen . . . and what I’m going to do today, or tomorrow, or next week. I like just seeing what happens and not being in the rut of being at home and dealing with mundane, small every day problems. Just seeing the world . . . just seeing stuff.
How have you found traveling alone? It doesn’t really feel like I’ve traveled alone a lot because I am constantly meeting people. I was really nervous at first, like the first day and the first night I was still really nervous and I was thinking, oh why did I do this? I want to go home . . . and now, I don’t . . . I’m just really happy to be traveling.
What was making you feel that way? I was just scared that I wouldn’t meet people, or I wouldn’t have a good time, or I would just really miss home.
Can you tell me about meeting Mia and how you both connected? I met Mia . . . I saw her in a hostel in Quito. We were sitting in a common room, both Skyping our boyfriends, but the Skype didn’t work and we started talking and she was telling me what she wanted to do the next day and I was like, can I join you? And then, I started telling her about Colombia and she got inspired to come to Colombia. So now we’ve been traveling together for two-and-half weeks. Tomorrow, we part.
How are you feeling about parting? It’s scary. But, I think it’s okay as well. I really did decide to do this trip alone so I do want to do some traveling alone. Like it was one of my goals for this trip; to do it alone.
How is your boyfriend dealing with you being away for two months? He’s happy. Well, he’s not happy I’m gone, but he’s happy that I’m having a good time. He’s really relaxed about it which makes it much easier. He’s really supportive and never asked me not to go.
What about your parents, are they concerned? No, not really. I think my boyfriend is more concerned than my parents. My parents are kind of used to me traveling and no, I really don’t think they are that worried.
Is this the first time you’ve done a trip by yourself? Yeah, I went to Africa alone, but I was doing an internship so I wasn’t really alone. I did travel alone there for a little bit, I hitchhiked to Morocco with a friend and that was one time that my mom was worried. She hadn’t heard from me for two weeks because I didn’t have reception in the mountains. And since then, I do let my mom know if I’m going to be some where that I don’t have reception and tell her that she won’t hear from me for a couple of days and I don’t think she worries. They were kind of afraid about Colombia.
What are your impressions about Colombia, so far? I love it. It’s beautiful. The people are really friendly. And I like the colorful houses and the flowers. And I think it’s a very diverse country, you see a little bit of everything.
Is this trip meeting your expectations? Surpassing your expectations? Passing them.
How so? Well, I feel like I really don’t want to go home yet. I’m really enjoying myself and I feel like there is so much to do and to see. And so many people to talk too.
Have you learned any new insights about yourself while traveling? I think you learn something new everyday, But I wouldn’t say I’ve had any new insights and that wasn’t really my goal with traveling – to find out something new about myself. I guess I did want to see if I could spend a lot time alone, but it hasn’t really felt like I’ve been alone.
What do you like about the backpacking culture? I like that everyone is relaxed and laid-back. I like that they are open to new people, open to ideas. And, yeah . . . I think there is a difference before a 18-year-old backpacker and someone who is a little older, they have a different mentality but that’s normal – and I like hanging out with an 18-year-old, or a 76-year-old. That’s maybe what I like about backpacking – it’s really diverse.
Is there anything else you want to share about what traveling means to you? I think for me, traveling has a lot to do with freedom. You really feel free. That’s why I like that this place doesn’t have wifi. It’s good to be away sometimes. I think back home you can really get caught up in doing stuff for others, and constantly taking others into consideration. And when you travel, you can decide for yourself what you want to do . . . yeah, that’s my personal experience. For me, it’s really about the freedom of it.
You had mentioned earlier, before we started recording our conversation, that you get nervous before you travel? I think a lot of people don’t travel because they are afraid to get out of their routine and do something new. And I’m always really nervous before a trip . . . and like three/two days before I go I never want to go. I even think things like, maybe I’ll break a leg and then I can’t go, but once there I’m alway so happy I decided to go . . . It’s scary to leave behind whats normal. I think that’s a fear that comes back in a lot of things in life. It’s why people don’t quit their jobs, or get out of bad relationships . . . stay in a place where they aren’t happy. And it’s really a waste of your life. I understand if you have kids, or responsibilities that you need to keep your job, but us, our generation – if you are unhappy in a situation, change it. And that’s whats good about traveling, you get to see that its okay to change. It’s okay to do something different and get out of your comfort zone.
If you could give someone advice about backpacking around South America, what would you say? I don’t think there are any cons. I think its good to get out of your daily routine and see something new. It can never hurt to see a little more of the world. It’s good to be open-minded – just take in what comes along. Yeah, you spend money while not earning it, but that’s okay!
Name: Mia Spruit
From: Rotterdam, Netherlands
Occupation: Communications Consultant
Languages: Dutch, French, English. Spanish
Length of trip: Six months
Why did you decide to take this trip? I’ve always had a big desire to travel. When I was young, I traveled a lot, but not for a long time. And, yeah I wanted to travel for a long time and that’s the reason why I wanted to go away for six months.
Where are you now in your six month trip? I’m at three weeks right now. My first plan was to start in Ecuador and then to go down to Peru, Bolivia and a bit of Chile. My mother is coming to visit me in Argentina and my boyfriend is coming to pick me up in Brazil, but I met Sophie in Quito. I really wanted to go to Colombia, but I didn’t want to go alone. So, when she told me that she was going, I thought, why not . . . and I went with her. But I think I am going to start going back down to stick with my plan.
Before you started traveling with Sophie, how was your experience traveling alone? I have traveled alone before and I really like it because I like to be alone, but it’s also nice to share with people. So, I like both and I’ve had two weeks now with Sophie and now I’m ready to go on alone. Yeah, sometimes I really appreciate not being around a lot of people and having to talk all the time, but I do like to share experiences and do things together. Like going on a hike; it’s nicer to do it with people.
Did you have to quit your job to travel for six months? I did. I didn’t have too, but I did.
Why did you choose to travel to South America? Well, actually it was not my first choice . . . I’m really fond of Asia, I’ve been there a couple of times and I really like it. But, I thought if I have six months, I should do something that I’m not going to do again very soon. I also speak a little spanish and I really want to improve it, so that’s why I choose South America.
I know you are only three weeks into your trip, but have you encountered any obstacles or situations you didn’t anticipate? No, luckily not yet. I’ve traveled a lot. Originally, I am from Morocco. I’ve been there a lot of times, and not last year, but the year before I was robbed very brutally, very violent. It had a huge impact on me and I didn’t think that I could travel alone again, but for some reason I don’t feel any fear . . . I really have the feeling that I’m strong enough to do this by myself. I think if you’re in a really good vibe and if you feel good, then you only receive good. So yeah, nothing bad is going to happen.
What was your impression of Ecuador: the culture and the people who you met there? For some reason, I’m really a feeling person, and an emotional person. Recently, I had met a girl from Ecuador and we really had a nice time and I got the feeling that I should go there. I also wanted to visit the Galapagos, but when I arrived I think my expectations were too high. I liked it, but now I have that I have visited Colombia, I can compare the two and I like Colombia better. The people, I didn’t find very friendly, but I think they are very used too tourists and here I think its different. I also didn’t like the coast very much, I thought it would be beautiful white beaches, but it was not like that. So, yeah it’s not what I expected, but its okay.
Did your family have any concerns about you taking a six month trip? Yeah, my mother is always worried. She always worries, but if I should take that into account, I couldn’t go anywhere I guess. She just has to accept the fact that I’m a traveler.
Why do you like to travel? For some reason when I travel I don’t have any doubts about myself. I’m in such a good vibe that I don’t doubt if I’m making the right choices, I don’t doubt how I look, and how I am . . . If I’m a good person. I really like meeting new people. I really like getting to know cultures and I’m a little bit of a thrill seeker, so I like to do adventurous things.
You mention that when you are traveling that you don’t have a lot of self-doubts, is that something face when you are back home in your normal routine? Well it’s not continuously going on, but yeah I have doubts about the life I live . . . I had a very difficult past, so I’m always in the past, but when I’m traveling I’m in the present. I don’t think a lot about what happened in the past and what happened in my youth. And I think all girls have doubts about their bodies . . . and I’m getting older, I’m 36 now and I am doubting about having children or not, and when I’m traveling I’m not just there. I’m just present and I don’t think about all that. I have a very good feeling about the future and yeah . . .
How is your boyfriend feel about you taking a six month trip? He’s having a very hard time. Before I left, he was like you have to do this if its your desire, but I think he didn’t expect it the way it is now and he really misses being close physically so he’s had a few tough days, but I think he’s okay.
What was it about Sophie that made you want to travel with her? It didn’t start out with traveling together. It was only us spending a day in Quito and we went off on this cable car on a mountain in Quito and we had a really nice conversation. We took a hike for like three hours and yeah . . . then you really feel if you have the same idea of life. She’s almost eight years younger than me, but yeah we had a good connection. I was planning on going to the north and she was planning on going to the south and I said we should keep in touch, and we did. She had said she wanted to go to the Galapagos islands as well, and so I said that we should go together.
Is it hard for you to say goodbye after you’ve been traveling with someone for a while? No, I think it’s because . . . I don’t mean to be a snob, but I think because I’m a little bit older and as I told Sophie, I’m not into traveling with people who I don’t really like . . . so if I really like, if I click with somebody its okay. But if I see right away that this is not my type of person then I’d rather be alone. Sophie is the type that she’s not used to traveling alone a lot and she likes to be with a lot of people and she chooses to be with people even if she doesn’t like them very well. But, I really choose the people who I travel with.
Are there any other thoughts that you want to share about traveling? Just that every trip confirms for me that you have to be grateful. I am so grateful that I can do this. And every trip, I learn that every person you meet . . . brings you something. And not just other fellow travelers, but also locals. You know when I first started traveling people would ask me, “where are you going, where are you staying?” And I thought why do you want to know? I thought that they wanted to know because they wanted . . . but they just wanted to know, they are so friendly. So the whole time when I’m meeting people I try to be open-minded all the time. For example, my bad experience in Morocco, yeah, I learned that bad things can happen. Yes they stole everything from me, but those are just materials. I think when I travel, I really appreciate what’s important in life.
If you could advice to somebody who’s sitting at home right now and really wanted to take a long-term trip, what would you tell them? I actually want to write a book about that because I meet a lot of girls who want to travel alone, but they are always doubting whether they should, so they are always looking for somebody to travel with, but I just want to say to them . . . just go. You meet so many people along the way and you just have to follow your heart and go. Don’t doubt so much. I never doubt traveling because it’s the nicest thing that I can do in life. But a lot of people, especially girls doubt traveling alone because of insecurity or they think that they aren’t going to met anyone nice. And you know it surprises me that I’ve met a lot of girls that are traveling alone here. I haven’t met that many guys traveling alone, only girls and couples.